Side Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse

Learn about prescription drug abuse, what the most abused prescription drugs are and their side effects, as well as treatment options.

Table of Contents

What is Prescription Drug Abuse?

While prescription drugs can be immensely beneficial in the treatment and recovery of many illnesses, they do have the potential to be abused. Prescription drugs are the third most abused illegal substance in America.
Prescription medication abuse can look different from person to person and can include taking someone else’s prescription, taking larger doses than recommended, taking the prescription in a different manner than directed, and using prescription drugs to specifically get high.
prescription drug abuse

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Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics

In the United States, it is estimated that over sixteen million people abuse prescription drugs per year. Additionally, approximately fifty-two million Americans have purposely abused prescription drugs in their lifetime. Of individuals who use prescription drugs, around 12% have a substance use disorder. 1

What Makes Prescription Drugs Addictive?

Not all prescription drugs are addictive, many can be prescribed safely and have a low potential for abuse. However, some drugs have a higher potential to become addictive than others. This is because of their effects on the brain, specifically on the reward center. Additionally, as individuals use prescription drugs over time, they build a tolerance which can also lead to addiction.

The Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

Some of the most commonly abused types of prescription drugs include opioids, central nervous system depressants, and stimulants. While these drugs do require a prescription, they are easy to access, as they are widely prescribed.


Approximately 82% of pharmacy-filled prescriptions are opioids, making them one of the most abused prescription drugs in America. This includes drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine. These drugs are typically prescribed as pain relievers but can be highly addictive. It is estimated that almost two hundred million opioid prescriptions are filled per year. 2
In addition to being addictive, opioids also have a high potential for overdose. In 2020, nearly 75% of all overdose-related deaths involved an opioid. Of those deaths involving opioids, 32% involved prescription opioids. 3

Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants

Central nervous system (CNS) depressants are drugs that are designed to slow brain activity and are usually used as sleep aids or in treatment of anxiety-related disorders. CNS depressants include tranquilizers, sedatives, and hypnotics. Valium, Ativan, Xanax, Klonopin, and barbiturates such as Luminol are all considered CNS depressants as well. 4


Stimulants are another drug with a high potential for prescription medication abuse. Prescription stimulants include drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin, which are typically prescribed for the treatment of ADHD. These drugs are often used as “study aids” amongst younger adults, as they increase focus and provide a rush of energy for those that don’t use them as medication for ADHD or other disorders.

Prescription Drug Abuse Side Effects

When taken as directed, prescription drugs tend to be fairly safe. However, abuse of prescription drugs can lead to both long- and short-term side effects that may affect both the body and mind.

Short-Term Effects

Opiates, CNS depressants, and stimulants have almost immediate effects on the body. Both opiates and CNS depressants are considered to be in the depressant class of drugs and slow bodily functions. Short-term side effects of these drugs include decreased heart rate, slowed breathing, and a drop in body temperature. In contrast, short-term effects of stimulants include an increase in heart rate and body temperature, as well as symptoms such as hallucinations, paranoia, and psychosis.

Long-Term Effects

Abusing prescription drugs in the long term can be disastrous to your health. Additionally, it can lead to chemical dependency and addiction, making it harder to quit. Prolonged stimulant abuse can lead to damage to the heart, liver, kidneys, and blood vessels as well. Opiates also damage these organ systems and can additionally lead to long-term gastrointestinal issues, along with chemical and structural changes in the brain that are not easily reversed. 5

Prescription Drug Abuse Risk Factors

Risk factors for prescription medication abuse include having past addictions, a family history of substance abuse, peer pressure, pre-existing psychiatric conditions, and easy access to prescriptions. 6

Additionally, older adults and women have an increased risk for prescription drug abuse. 7

Prescription Drug Abuse Dangers

Outside of chemical dependency and addiction, overdose is one of the main dangers of prescription drug abuse. As tolerance builds, individuals may find that they need to take more of the drug to experience the same effects. This can very quickly lead to a fatal overdose, seizure, or coma.

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Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse

It can be difficult to tell if someone is abusing prescription drugs. Being aware of the signs and symptoms of prescription drug abuse can be immensely helpful in preventing overdose and getting treatment early.

Common Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse symptoms and signs vary depending on a number of factors, including dosage size and the individual’s history with drugs. Indications include:

Opioids: Signs of opioid prescription drug abuse can include confusion, drowsiness, poor coordination, slowed breathing, nausea, an increased tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms when the individual tries to quit or lower their dose 

CNS Depressants: Similarly to opiates, CNS depressant abuse can lead to prescription drug abuse symptoms such as slurred speech, lack of coordination, drowsiness, dry mouth, and withdrawal symptoms. 

Stimulants: Signs of stimulant abuse may include hyperactivity and restlessness, tremors, increased heart rate and blood pressure, confusion, aggression, and panic.

Other Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse

Other signs of prescription drug abuse include a noticeable craving for the substance, behavioral changes, and withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit. Withdrawal symptoms will vary depending on what drug is being used and the person’s relationship with that drug. Additionally, individuals who struggle with prescription drug abuse may see multiple physicians to get access to more prescriptions.

Prescription Drug Abuse Rehab

Prescription drug abuse recovery can be daunting. But with the help of rehab and the right support, recovery is possible.

What is Prescription Drug Abuse Rehab?

Prescription drug abuse rehabs are facilities that specialize in helping individuals heal from addiction. Rehab provides a safe space for individuals to detox from prescription drugs, find solutions for withdrawal management, and address the underlying reasons associated with substance abuse.
While program descriptions will vary depending on the rehab, most prescription drug abuse rehab programs include drug detox, inpatient or outpatient treatment, behavioral therapy, and medication management.

Prescription Drug Detox

When an individual stops taking prescription drugs, withdrawal symptoms may occur. This is especially true for opioids, stimulants, and CNS depressants. Withdrawal from these drugs is not only uncomfortable but can be dangerous as well. Because of this, it is recommended that detox be supervised by a medical professional, and most rehab facilities offer detox services.

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment is another component of rehab for prescription drug abuse. Individuals who have a high risk of relapse benefit best from these services. Inpatient treatment is a residential treatment service where individuals stay for a period of time at the rehab center. Inpatient treatment allows for constant supervision and support from medical staff through recovery.

Outpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment is not appropriate for everyone, and some individuals may benefit from outpatient treatment instead. While outpatient treatment can be done from home, it does require a higher level of accountability and check-ins. Therapy, psychoeducational groups, and medication are all a part of outpatient treatment.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy is a key component of both inpatient and outpatient treatments. Behavioral therapy is aimed at addressing and modifying behaviors related to substance abuse. Additionally, behavioral therapy allows individuals to take a hard look at their behaviors and the underlying thought patterns behind them.

Medication Management

Medication is often used in prescription drug abuse treatment to manage withdrawal symptoms. This is especially true for prescription opiates, as withdrawal can be severe.

Treatment for Prescription Drug abuse at Profound Treatment

prescription drugs

Ready to take the first step towards recovery from prescription drug abuse? Profound Treatment is here to help. At Profound Treatment’s rehab for prescription drug abuse, not only do we offer detoxification programs, but residential treatment options as well.

Treatment opportunities include:

Detoxification: Profound Treatment offers a comprehensive detoxification program designed to ease withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Individuals receive the benefit of constant and daily care to undergo detox safely and comfortably.

Treatment Programs: Detoxification is typically the first step in recovery, but the road doesn’t end there. At Profound Treatment, we know that recovery takes time, and having a supportive, safe environment is key.  We offer inpatient programs lasting anywhere from one to three months and beyond to care for your specific needs. Our residential treatment program is thorough and includes therapy, psychoeducational groups, life skills training, family therapy, and medication management.

Get Help for Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse is serious and can be disastrous in the long run. Don’t hesitate to get in contact with us today and begin your journey to a drug-free life.

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